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As a dietitian, I help people improve their diet. This means I see people starting from the Standard American Diet (SAD) and move them towards a real food diet, but I also see people who have been on the paleo diet for quite some time and are still having trouble. Though my patients vary in where they’re coming from, these are some of my most common recommendations.
1. Eat nose-to-tail
It’s easy to eat too much muscle meat when starting the paleo diet and not enough of the other parts of the animal (like the skin or organ meats). Part of this stems from the press about paleo, which tends to paint paleo as if practically all we eat is meat (see the picture of this article…really?). If this is someone’s introduction to paleo, it’s easy to see why they might be focused on consuming muscle meat! Because organ meats, skin, and bones (in the form of bone broth) are not a common part of the Standard American Diet (SAD), we don’t think much about incorporating these foods into our diet when we first start. However, it is crucial to include these parts (along with muscle meat) in order to nourish ourselves properly. I encourage you to watch Denise Minger’s wonderful presentation from the 2012 Ancestral Health Symposium – she discusses the problems with including solely muscle meat without eating the rest of the animal. Minger mentions that our high intake of methionine (an amino acid that comes from muscle meats), combined with our low intake of glycine (an amino acid from skin, bones, cartilage, etc) is a setup for chronic health issues.
Think about it: traditional cultures value every part of the animal and use them all in some capacity. It is only very recently that we have started to pick and choose what parts of the animal we consume. Eating the whole animal ensures a balanced intake of all the amino acids, so it is wise to do just that! An added benefit of glycine is that it improves your sleep quality (read more about the importance of sleep in Tip #3).
The Lesson: Nose-to-tail eating has important health benefits – don’t just eat muscle meat!
2. Don’t be afraid to experiment with carbohydrates
Carbohydrates have gotten some bad press in the last few years, especially in the paleo community. The truth is that traditional cultures have thrived on a variety of diets – some very low in carbohydrates and some very high. A low carbohydrate paleo diet can be helpful for some people in the modern world, especially those with metabolic disorders. However, that doesn’t mean that it is the best choice for everyone. Given that traditional cultures thrived on many different macronutrient ratios, why are some of us intolerant to carbohydrates? Chris Masterjohn gives a glimpse into the answer to this question in his 2012 AHS talk (can you tell by now that the talks at AHS are awesome? You should register!).
The point I’m trying to make here is this: carbohydrate intake is a highly individual thing and a matter of experimentation and personalization. If you tolerate safe starches (sweet potatoes, taro, yucca, etc) and feel better including them in your diet, go for it! If you experiment and find that they make you feel worse, it’s an indication that they should be kept on the low side (at least for now).
The Lesson: Experiment to find the proper level of starch that works for you. **Note: if you have been diagnosed with a metabolic condition like diabetes or metabolic syndrome, please consult with a qualified healthcare practitioner to help you figure out what works best for you.
3. Pay attention to sleep and stress
I always talk about sleep and stress with my clients. Some are surprised, thinking “isn’t she a nutritionist?”. What we discuss during our appointment is that sleep and stress have a lot to do with how our body reacts to everything – including food. If you’re looking to manage blood glucose levels and diet alone isn’t doing enough, look at your sleep: short sleep duration is associated with impaired glucose tolerance. Almost a third of Americans get less than 6 hours of sleep each night and getting less than 7 hours of sleep on a consistent basis is associated with cardiovascular and diabetes risk factors, depression, automobile and workplace accidents, learning and memory problems, and an overall increase in mortality. Clearly, sleep is important to our health.
Work on improving your sleep quality by reducing your exposure to artificial light; put away electronics earlier in the night, install F.lux on your computer, and even wear orange goggles if that’s what it takes! Getting quality sleep is worth it. Want some more tips? Here are eight great habits to get into for better sleep.
Stress is another big one that we tend to overlook, but it absolutely affects our food choices. Stress exposure is associated with hunger, binge eating, and ineffective attempts to restrain eating – that doesn’t sound like a healthy relationship with food to me. Take a look at your life: are you happy? Do you enjoy your social life? Your work? Be mindful of places or situations where you feel less than your best and avoid them or, even better, work to make them more enjoyable. Start practicing yoga, meditation, tai chi, or another mind-body medicine activity. Your body will thank you.
The Lesson: Though what you eat is important, make sure you get enough quality sleep and keep stress levels low.
4. Acknowledge your progress and don’t compare yourself to others
I always tell clients to keep a journal of their progress, and Chris includes the Progress Tracker in his Personal Paleo Code for good reason: it’s very easy to forget how far we’ve come. If that’s you, start writing down what you’ve accomplished every day. Keep in mind that when I say this, I don’t mean start weighing yourself daily, taking measurements all the time, etc. What I mean is take the time to acknowledge your behavior changes. You ditched the mid-afternoon trip to the vending machine? Awesome – write it down. Your sleep is better because you started making your evenings more relaxing? Great! Take the time to write down your successes and periodically go back and read your entries. Though these successes might seem small, they add up. Use your journal to reflect on the hard work you’ve put into these changes.
Keep in mind that this is your private journal. You choose who you share it with, if anyone. Its purpose is to keep your awareness on your progress and allow you to reflect on your hard work. You don’t need to compare notes with anyone. Your diet and your life are yours, so stop comparing your results, your success, your failures to others – it never helps. Focus on you.
The Lesson: Take the time to write down your successes and go back and read them periodically. Don’t compare yourself to others, this is all about you!
I hope these tips have helped you to think about how you can improve your lifestyle. Have some additional ideas? Feel free to share in the comments!